We were wrong?
January 16, 2014 9:16 AM   Subscribe

Even Ph.D.s Who Got “Full Funding” Have Huge Amounts of Debt (SLSLATE) "A shocking number of users also report [a debt loan of] $100,000 and up; some $200,000 and over, even with a funding package. “My graduate stipend did not cover my living expenses, books, money I needed for research,” explains one user. “TA salary and fee remission not enough to support my two children,” says another. Graduate students do not usually receive funding in the summer—but are often expected to complete intensive research or exam prep—so many users also cited summer living expenses. Though Kelsky expected a substantial reaction, she says she is still “stunned” at the rate at which entries keep coming in, and “with such devastating figures and stories.” (be sure to check out the link for 'fully funded')
posted by MisantropicPainforest (152 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
As a Ph.D. candidate in the humanities with full knowledge of how terrible the job market has been and will be, and of the very high interest rates for graduate student loans....why would anyone ever, ever take on that much debt?
posted by munyeca at 9:22 AM on January 16 [13 favorites]


“Professional suicide is what graduate students are already committing on a daily basis as they confront the reality of Ph.D.s that cannot be turned into meaningful work, and the looming default on what are often hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans.”

Why do people keep signing up for these programs?
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:22 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


Ask a law student.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:22 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Yep, if I wasn't working and supporting us, my wife would probably have debt around the 100K mark after 5 years of getting her PhD. Her full funding was basically a full-time minimum wage job, and her program prohibited her from having any other employment.
posted by LionIndex at 9:25 AM on January 16


PhD to tenure is now the middle class version of shooting for the NFL draft.
posted by jaduncan at 9:25 AM on January 16 [107 favorites]


This law student and PhD dropout observes that 100 out of 100 people in my first year of law school section expected to get the two As we were told would be given out on the school's graving curve.
posted by prefpara at 9:26 AM on January 16 [11 favorites]


Why do people keep signing up for these programs?

Didn't mefi have the "do what you love is a lie" article a week or so ago ?
posted by k5.user at 9:27 AM on January 16 [6 favorites]


The problem with trying to talk PhD and law students out of it by saying "Only the very special-est of snowflakes should go" is they are people for their entire lives who have been--or have been told--they are the very special-est of snowflakes.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:27 AM on January 16 [41 favorites]


Why do people keep signing up for these programs?

As someone graduating with a BS in Biology many years ago, I felt my choices were to get a job feeding animals at the zoo, or get PAID the princely sum of ~$16,000 a year (twice what I lived on as an undergrad) to get a PhD, a sure ticket to fame and fortune! Or at least a better job than feeding animals at the zoo.

A couple of years as an underpaid postdoc not really able to pay down my loans (mostly from undergrad but some to cover crap like a broken down car in grad school) convinced me that the system is a pyramid scheme. I wound up going to additional vocational school, which worked out pretty well in the long term.
posted by exogenous at 9:28 AM on January 16 [7 favorites]


Why do people keep signing up for these programs?

People in their late teens and early twenties make really dumb decisions sometimes.

Ask me how I know.
posted by Aizkolari at 9:28 AM on January 16 [40 favorites]


I once asked the AMS if they'd consider running a few queries against their mathjobs.org database to produce career advice for young mathematicians entering graduate school, but they politely refused.

Academia professional societies are run by academics with permanent jobs and little incentive to rock the boat, warn the younger academics, etc. Yes, individually faculty will warn students about career path issues, but the societies won't take collective that sends a uniform message backed by evidence. And this increases how many students signin up, tylerkaraszewski.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:31 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


The real issue here isn't about students 'not knowing better' or whatever, it's about universities exploiting graduate student labor. My return on investment from my most-of-a-PhD is either brilliant, in that I made a meager living while doing it and will finish (I hope) without debt,* or absolutely terrible in that I've forgone at least $100,000 in income (a serious underestimate) in the last five and a half years and probably will see no salary boost for having a PhD, ever. The university will have saved itself more than $100,000 by compensating me with tuition waivers rather than actual money.

*I got a small amount of money from my uncle's life insurance partway through grad school. I'm theoretically saving it, but I suspect if I ran the numbers, it's kept my head above water occasionally because I pull money from my savings account periodically (and put small amounts of money in).
posted by hoyland at 9:32 AM on January 16 [22 favorites]


Yeah, it really feels like there's a missing puzzle piece here, because at first glance, the whole proposition just seems so obviously risky--as in "win the lottery" odds. I have an honours degree in philosophy and toyed with the idea of academia as a career path, but it was quickly apparent to me that only the most insanely dedicated would find a tenured position, and that was before considering the expense. Who's pushing all these academics to keep struggling up the ladder at ruinous expense?

Alternately, are we in the middle of a story cycle where a smaller number of hard luck stories serve a larger narrative that destroys the idea that tenure is a viable job option? I can imagine administrators and conservatives pushing that story that lower expectations for academics and feed into the privated university machine where you hope to get your adjunct contract renewed every year.
posted by fatbird at 9:33 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


Why do people keep signing up for these programs?

As a humanities PhD with a ton of debt who is struggling to find a tenure-track job, I think I can answer this question:

Because I love what I do and I can't imagine pursuing another vocation. You know, the same reason that people pursue equally unlikely careers as professional athletes or rock stars.

Of course we all "know" the facts about debt and employment. But when have facts ever stopped humans from aspiring to do something that they love, even if it is totally unreasonable?

On preview, hoyland makes a great point.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:33 AM on January 16 [17 favorites]


Why do people keep signing up for these programs?

Sometimes you get told over and over again by people in your department that you won't get a job or live up to your degree without a PhD. Sometimes your parents tell you that. Sometimes it sticks. (I still regret not being in a PhD program. It's hard to leave something you love.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:34 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


Just wanted to point out that one part is misleading. She writes:

"(I have a Ph.D. in German; if I were a statistician, I’d probably have a better job—though I might also be in some debt.)"

There are three stat PhDs in that document, only one has any educational debt, and its 11k from undergrad.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:37 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]



This law student and PhD dropout observes that 100 out of 100 people in my first year of law school section expected to get the two As we were told would be given out on the school's graving curve.
posted by prefpara at 9:26 AM on January 16 [+] [!]


As a faculty member, I salute your typo and formally request it is incorporated into the modern academic lexicon.
posted by lalochezia at 9:38 AM on January 16 [21 favorites]


It's funny, a lot of people seem to want to do what they love to do, but in my experience I am always happier doing something in a way that I love. Being really good at something boring but relatively lucrative and rarified, having the freedom to work with people you like - this is a far, far better life to me than putting myself in a humiliating financial situation so that I can happen to work with a subject matter that I prefer. There is only one subject matter, that is life. I say that it's funny because I know people who really are the opposite - they will move anywhere to get a job teaching whatever academic thing they know about. Obviously my choices don't suit everyone's nature, but at the same time I see a lot of people blindly pursuing a subject matter or field of inquiry rather than a life, as if it was the only path towards happiness.
posted by Teakettle at 9:38 AM on January 16 [19 favorites]


I think a better question than "why do people keep signing up for these programs" is, "Why don't influential social institutions value this work by sufficient or even reasonable compensation?"

Look, when you don't support the people who produce knowledge, it means that you don't value knowledge.
posted by entropone at 9:39 AM on January 16 [45 favorites]


I withdrew from a PhD in the UK six months ago. It was terrifying, but that feeling was swiftly followed by relief. Fortunately, I wasn't left with the kind of debt people go into in the US.
posted by knapah at 9:39 AM on January 16


“Professional suicide is what graduate students are already committing on a daily basis as they confront the reality of Ph.D.s that cannot be turned into meaningful work, and the looming default on what are often hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans.”

I've recruited and hired tons of people, and I do a lot of coaching for people looking for a job. When I hear stuff like this - and similar concerns from people transitioning out of the military - I'm always left baffled. Anyone with those experiences has marketable skills and can make a viable living. The problem tends to be that they're told that's not true, and never bother to question the lie.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 9:39 AM on January 16 [19 favorites]


whomp whomp sad trombone
posted by prefpara at 9:40 AM on January 16


why would anyone ever, ever take on that much debt?

Oh the fucking cynicism of these threads.

People do this because a graduate education and a life in the academy is the essence of self-actualization. The problem is not that people yearn for this life. It's that the system is set up in a way that forces them to bear unsustainable costs in order to achieve it. If you're going to cast aspersions on something, why make it young scholars and not a badly distorted culture that says the only way to have a functioning humanistic academy is to make it gladiatorial?

It took me years, but I did it. I have well in excess of $100k in debt for a doctorate in the humanities. But for that, I have a wonderful job at a top school and I thank my lucky stars daily for my career. Not everyone can or should do it. But the good ones who work hard and are willing to eat buckets full of shit for long periods of time can make it work. I have a friend who was just tenured at a top liberal arts college who was on the market for 8 years. But during that time, he wrote 2 books and a handful of great articles. His focus was laserlike and it paid off eventually.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not problematizing failure or saying that those people who can't make a course for themselves in the academy deserve their fate. I'm saying the system should be set us such that we don't immediately assume that humanistic inquiry is self-indulgent or that people who want to earn an advanced degree are necessarily delusional. The cost of failure in the academy should not be catastrophic.

The problem is structural. It's a function of the government and private foundations not subsidizing the academy in a way that would help it to flourish without being brutal to its weakest aspirants. The academy as an institution is working very well. But at the individual, human level, the youngest generation of people who make up that academy are being forced to bear an inhumane burden to keep it functioning. That is not their fault. It's the fault of an outcomes-oriented, business-first, knowing price of everything and value of nothing culture.
posted by R. Schlock at 9:41 AM on January 16 [88 favorites]


I'm going back to grad school this Fall, after 15 years in the labor force. Right now, I'm well-paid and enjoying what I do. When I'm done with school, assuming I make it, I expect to be poorly-paid, and I have no expectation that my job satisfaction will be high. I will probably never make as much as I make now again.

The fact that I get to do this thing that, despite all that, I really want to do, is an enormous luxury. I couldn't responsibly do it if I didn't expect that my wife will be able to support me and my daughter through the next decade.

As it is, with eyes wide open I'm deciding to change our financial future from "probably upper middle class" to "probably middle class". I'm lucky. If it were from "lower middle class" to "hopefully scraping by under crushing debt", I don't think I could pull the trigger.
posted by gurple at 9:46 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


The problem with grad school is that you believe that not becoming an academic is failing, whereas, on average, the people from my program who dropped out before finishing have better jobs (in terms of stability and compensation) than those who didn't. I myself have a tenure-track job, and I'm pretty confident I will get tenure when I go up for it in a few years (crosses fingers), but I am at a teaching institution and my scholarship (which is a minor part of my job anyway) has almost nothing to do with my dissertation research, and so I sometimes feel like a failure. It's just a sick state of mind.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 9:46 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


Sometimes you get told over and over again by people in your department that you won't get a job or live up to your degree without a PhD. Sometimes your parents tell you that. Sometimes it sticks.

I was told that by everyone I respected, back in the 1990s. My mentors, my PhD and MD parents, everyone. Go on to your PhD and you can write your own ticket. I presume they were basing their enthusiastic and sage advice on their own experience, where their PhDs were their tickets to comfort and joy, before the overload caught up to the rest of us.

And since I respected and trusted all of them so much, and didn't have the life experience or the crystal ball to see how the universities and the market (and my psyche) would change, I followed their advice. People follow advice from strangers on the Green with much less reason every day.

I still grapple with a deep well of regret for a lot of effort and time that was in many senses wasted, and a lot of mental/emotional damage I incurred. But I will admit I'm very lucky--due to a pathological fear of debt, I scraped through to get the doctorate without any loans, although it took me a million years. And in this taking of a million years, I found my way to my current (field-adjacent) work, which I love--although, we come back around to the fact that it is not well-paying and the PhD makes no difference in it. In the end I kind of finished the degree just because of sheer bloody-minded persistence and the fact that my humiliation circuits had been burned out from overuse. And that's no way to live.
posted by theatro at 9:46 AM on January 16 [10 favorites]


"Only the very special-est of snowflakes should go"

But, of course, it isn't true that only the very "special-est of snowflakes" are the ones who are successful. The people who manage to score the few tenure-track jobs are not really more special or talented than the vast majority of their competitors. The academic job market is flooded with incredible amounts of talent. I've got multiple publications, including a recent article in one of the premier journals in field; I've just signed a contract with a prominent academic press to publish a collection of essays I co-edited with a friend -- it'll be the first book-length work on the subject and includes contributions from some major figures in the discipline; I've got glowing recommendations from a number of well-known and well-respected scholars; I've got more and more varied teaching experience than most people at my level; and I'm halfway through a 2nd PhD. This year I've applied to something like 70+ different jobs. Guess how many interviews I got? 3, and I'm probably only in the running for 1 of them. And I know people with way more impressive credentials who got NO interviews. It's just brutal: there are an average of 150-200 at least applicants for every job I apply for -- even the shittiest adjunct positions. How many other fields have that kind of labor surplus?

On preview: +1 for entropone and R. Schlock
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:47 AM on January 16 [15 favorites]


I'm in a humanities PhD program, I love it, I have reasonable expectations of my future, and I'm not racking up any debt. I live and study in a flyover state, so the cost of living is low, which helps. There are major problems with the academic system, but my experience has not been as grim as the prevailing grad school narrative.
posted by mmmbacon at 9:47 AM on January 16 [4 favorites]


The problem is structural. It's a function of the government and private foundations not subsidizing the academy in a way that would help it to flourish without being brutal to its weakest aspirants.

The problem is academics encouraging way too many students to go into PhD programs, regardless of whether they'll get jobs at the end, then blaming those students' unemployment on a lack of sufficient subsidy (!) from everyone else in society. Here's an idea: pursue a career track that doesn't require massively more public money than is currently forthcoming in order to provide you with a meaningful shot at employment. Or, at the very least, go in with your eyes open and don't expect your PhD to lead to a job in academia.
posted by Dasein at 9:47 AM on January 16 [6 favorites]


upon earning my doctorate in icthyo-braccaen studies i never again had to concern myself with the mundanities of finance.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 9:48 AM on January 16 [8 favorites]


The problem is academics encouraging way too many students to go into PhD programs

You have no idea what you are talking about because anyone going into a PhD program nowadays is told, over and over and over again, by their professors: "don't go".
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:50 AM on January 16 [7 favorites]


The problem is academics encouraging way too many students to go into PhD programs, regardless of whether they'll get jobs at the end, then blaming those students' unemployment on a lack of sufficient subsidy (!) from everyone else in society.

Funny fact, no one in academia encouraged me to go to grad school. They didn't discourage me, either, but it's not like professors are telling undergrads doing PhDs is the one true path or something.
posted by hoyland at 9:50 AM on January 16


pursue a career track that doesn't require massively more public money than is currently forthcoming in order to provide you with a meaningful shot at employment.

And what public money are you referring to?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:50 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


why would anyone ever, ever take on that much debt?

People do this because for fucking decades everybody middle class has been told that you have to go to university, you have to go to law school or study medicine to get a good job and make a decent living, been told that you shouldn't worry about debt because it's an investment and as long as you do a proper, serious study, you'll be rich someday.

Most of that has been said by the same people now tuttutting that all these students are dumb dumbs for going into debt so much for a degree everybody knows is worthless.

It is of course all the fault of these feckless students, not that of greedy universities jacking up tuiton fees, a government uninterested in paying for the education they insist people need and a whole industry build up around feeding them to the loan sharks.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:50 AM on January 16 [57 favorites]


FURTHERMORE
(i'm not in academia defending myself, but still)
We're talking about people who may be entering this field in their early twenties (ie, prefrontal cortex not yet developed, still making decisions in short-term, not long-term interest). They've been told their whole life that if you go to college - better yet, grad school! especially if someone is paying your way! - then everything is going to be great and you're going to get a great and fulfilling job.

Yes, there is information out there to the contrary, but we don't live in an environment when there's an even balance of information (and access to it) that people objectively consider, and even if we did, the narrative of "Go to college, everything will be great because Society Values Education" is fucking powerful.
posted by entropone at 9:51 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


As a humanities PhD with a ton of debt who is struggling to find a tenure-track job, I think I can answer this question:

Because I love what I do and I can't imagine pursuing another vocation. You know, the same reason that people pursue equally unlikely careers as professional athletes or rock stars.


That's a really excellent point, and I believe if being a professional athlete or rock star required a PhD, a huge number of people would go into debt seeking those dreams, too. Since those professions require a lot of luck and perseverance rather than a degree, people don't go into (much) debt; they simply live impoverished lifestyles and work at underpaying jobs to keep their heads above water while they pursue their dreams. For those that eventually give up, those that pursued the athlete/rock star success have nothing; those that pursued the PhD-driven success have crippling debt.

From that perspective, pursuing an athletic/rock star lifestyle suddenly seems quite rational!

So, genuine question: if you truly love what you do, is it possible to pursue it and participate in it without a PhD, even if the potential paychecks/other rewards are much lower, or is not having a PhD crippling to entry (even adjacently) into the field?
posted by davejay at 9:55 AM on January 16 [6 favorites]


I am no social scientist, but I suspect that an open Google Doc and a beg to send out the link is not proper scientific procedure here.
posted by LarryC at 9:56 AM on January 16 [4 favorites]


No one who has entered a Humanities Ph.D. in the last ten years, at least, has done so without being repeatedly told by pretty much every single person involved in the process that it's an incredibly risky path to follow and that almost anything else is a better financial bet. There is no systematic pressure on bright undergraduates to enter graduate school in the Humanities and take on vast amounts of debt because it's an "investment" which is bound to pay off.
posted by yoink at 9:56 AM on January 16 [11 favorites]


even if we did, the narrative of "Go to college, everything will be great because Society Values Education" is fucking powerful.

It's probably also worth noting that we are not too far past the point where going to college gave you serious access to social mobility. Not having a degree now obviously generally limits your social mobility, but having one isn't the advantage it was for our parents' generation.
posted by hoyland at 9:57 AM on January 16 [4 favorites]


The job market for graduating PhDs is bad. We all know this, and anyone who's sane needs to be working on figuring out their plan at least two years before they plan to graduate. Not all jobs in the sciences (my area) are in academia; depending on your focus there are good jobs to be had in industry, government, non-academic research institutes, the NGO sector, working for museums, etc. Even teaching in public schools is a viable option – you don't get to do research, but it pays a living wage and is generally stable and you have the opportunity (despite all the flaws with the public school system) to open children's minds to science. Academia is not the only option, and realizing that helps open up the field of employment opportunities considerably – though it's still not the easiest of roads, for sure.

However, and this has been said before many times on MeFi but it bears repeating, if you are in a program that isn't paying you enough to get by then you are getting screwed. Nobody in the sciences (it may be different in other fields but I can't speak to that) should be pursuing a graduate degree in a program that doesn't fund them well enough to live. We're not talking about a lavish lifestyle here, but you should be able to live modestly in reasonable comfort, and to put a little bit of money aside. If your life situation doesn't allow you to live on the stipends that your field pays then pursuing a degree is a poor choice. (I don't mean that you shouldn't go to grad school if you have kids – I know lots of people with kids, single moms mostly, who are in grad school and doing OK.) If the programs that you are looking at aren't offering you enough support that you can realistically live on your stipend without going into debt, then you shouldn't go to those programs – they want to exploit you, and if they aren't holding up the financial end of the bargain then how can you expect them to be able to fulfill the other obligations that a functional grad program has to its students? (e.g. research funding, professional contacts, access to equipment, etc.)

Getting a PhD is no longer a ticket to a high-paying job. I wish it were, and I hope that it is again someday and will do my part to work toward that, but for now people who are considering a PhD need to face that reality. If you work hard and are flexible about jobs then it's a way to spend five or more years doing something that you love (that is to say, research – if you don't love research then I don't know why you would want to do a PhD) with a chance of a permanent job doing that same thing someday and a solid prospect of some kind of OK-paying job where you can at least make use of the expertise that you gain during your time in the program.

That's it. There are other paths to a living-wage job, of course. If all you want is a job that pays at least a lower-middle-class wage then a PhD program is certainly not the easiest option. However, if you truly have a passion for a field and are willing to live frugally for five or more years in exchange for the opportunity to immerse yourself in the cutting edge of that field and at least have a chance of working in it for the rest of your life, then it's still a worthwhile transaction.

That's how I look at it, anyway; it doesn't make sense to me from any other angle. There are still good reasons for some people to take a PhD, but a lot of the people who are doing it are doing it for poor reasons. I'm glad that I came to this path later in my life than most people – if I'd started at 22 instead of 28, I don't think I would've had a very realistic view of what a PhD program was truly offering me. There is unfortunately still a lot of misperception out there among students regarding what a PhD program is all about, and that needs to be corrected. However, nobody should be going into $100,000 of debt for a PhD. That's a recipe for disaster, and a very poor decision. I feel sorry for the people who are in that situation – no doubt it looked like a good idea at the time, and by the time they realized they were getting screwed they had already dug themselves a pretty deep hole. It's avoidable though, if you go in with the right outlook.
posted by Scientist at 9:59 AM on January 16 [16 favorites]


I wish the google doc had separate columns for "debt from undergraduate degree" and "debt from graduate degree," as well as a column for "does admission to a PhD program in your field require a masters' degree," so that we could have better data on the relationships between debt and types of PhD programs. (And to sort out the semi-derail about the costs and reasons for an undergraduate degree in the U.S.)
posted by nicodine at 10:01 AM on January 16 [4 favorites]


So, genuine question: if you truly love what you do, is it possible to pursue it and participate in it without a PhD, even if the potential paychecks/other rewards are much lower, or is not having a PhD crippling to entry (even adjacently) into the field?

In computational biology, in my experience (8 years, but only at one institution), without a PhD you live in sort of a shadow world. People aren't sure how to treat you. If you can do impressive things that need to be done, and convince the right people of that fact, you can be treated like some kind of expert ninja, and you can draw a good salary.

But you will never be regarded as a scientist, not really, no matter how many papers you write. There will always be a barrier between you and them. There's a very real ceiling for you. And you'll constantly be surrounded by people with PhDs who have good jobs, so the PhD path appears very enticing. I wrote about this.
posted by gurple at 10:02 AM on January 16 [15 favorites]


There are many factors that keep PhDs providing such high-skilled labor for such extremely low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a PhD, but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL [Do What You Love] doctrine is embedded in academia. Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. This intense identification partly explains why so many proudly left-leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.
posted by shesdeadimalive at 10:03 AM on January 16 [24 favorites]


if you truly love what you do, is it possible to pursue it and participate in it without a PhD, even if the potential paychecks/other rewards are much lower, or is not having a PhD crippling to entry (even adjacently) into the field?

It's pretty much impossible to do my number one dream job (curator of X field) and a number of upper level positions in the associated careers (like museum director with X field in the collections) without one, yes. Not always! I have a master's degree, which helps. (There are always volunteer opportunities but they're short-term and you can't really do everything within a volunteer shift.) What's worrisome is the number of PhDs who are told they can easily get those adjacent jobs (like in museums, libraries, archives, etc.) Some of them legitimately love those adjacent jobs. Some of them really don't, or their training overlaps in different ways with the field. Some positions that are barely entry-level already have a master's degree requirement and I wouldn't be surprised if PhDs start becoming the new master's.
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:04 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


I am am a professor in the humanities. Some random thoughts:

1. Most of the other professor in my department tell students "don't go to grad school." A couple however say the opposite, and students want to hear this advice so badly that even one encouraging word has them packing for a doctoral program at the University of Nowhere and signing off for those student loans. I suspect that some of the posters here claiming that they were encouraged to go to grad school by their professors were also discouraged by other professors, who they resented and ignored and then forgot entirely.

2. A part of me wants to blame the grad students for being dumb asses--the dismal job prospects and low salaries and the decade to completion for a doctorate are all publicly known facts. Also well known--you cannot walk away from your student loans. They needed a dope slap they never got.

3. At the same time, the penalty for some bad financial decisions in ones 20s should not be a lifetime of debt peonage. People need to be able to declare bankruptcy and move on.
posted by LarryC at 10:06 AM on January 16 [7 favorites]


raised in a system designed to create winners and losers, who would ever think that they would grow up to be the loser?
posted by ennui.bz at 10:07 AM on January 16


R. Schlock: "Not everyone can or should do it. But the good ones who work hard and are willing to eat buckets full of shit for long periods of time can make it work." [emph. mine]

This is a part of the dynamic that doesn't get talked about enough. The practical demands, not intellectual demands, of the process of getting a PhD reward people with a pathological dearth of self-respect, and then when they get in the door they tend to demand the same levels of self-debasement from their advisees. This is why I almost uniformly despise the rotation students that come through my lab.

I think there are a lot of people who otherwise would do well in the academy but are put off by the fact that people in the midst of it confuse self-flaggelation for hard work.
posted by invitapriore at 10:08 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


I'm a PhD dropout. As mentioned above, students stay in grad school for reasons like these:

1. You might think "getting paid to study" is a cool idea, even when it's below-poverty level, because you have no point of reference beyond whatever exploitative minimum wage job you held in undergrad.

2. You trust educators not to exploit you. Therefore, you believe all of the sick system shit they tell you about being in graduate school.

3. There's a culture of overwork, and people make it seem noble to suffer and valorize staying up all night for absolutely pointless busywork like grading undergrad papers or doing assays or whatever.

4. If you leave early, you aren't committed enough. If you leave the program, you weren't good enough.

5. Every academic department and research project is in a constant state of crisis so you never really get your balance.

6. I rarely see this mentioned, but your family and friends freak first at the depth of the commitment you made, and then later when you start to consider dropping out. The pressure is tremendous.

7. Boot camp depersonalizes; grad school personalizes. Every misunderstanding, grammatical error, doubt, debt and political misstep is YOURS and on YOU. It's your integrity at stake when you're jumping... their hoops. As it turns out, I had to turn my own focus on myself and say... this is NOT YOU... it's them. If you're not in the mindset, this is very hard to understand... but the best thing I ever did, (and I only did it at the very end) was to consider my own health and happiness as more important than anything about grad school.

I dropped out, and it was the best decision I ever made. I live in an awesome place, and I make more in a single year than I did in those 3.5/4 years of study. I have learned more, too, and made more useful connections. While it is true that some doors are closed to me without a PhD, I have found that many of those doors open again when I show my portfolio. So I didn't need the degree at all.
posted by fake at 10:11 AM on January 16 [28 favorites]


"Only the very special-est of snowflakes should go"

....

But, of course, it isn't true that only the very "special-est of snowflakes" are the ones who are successful.


I don't think the "special-est of snowflakes" are distinguished by their incredible native talents, but their special economic situations, more than anything. I don't think anyone is suggesting that the issue is that less-than-capable candidates are reaching for the brass ring--we all have seen that many, many supremely talented people go begging, in law or academe, or whatever. The people who should go are the people with jobs lined up or trust funds or rich SOs.

I wanted to go to grad school for English, but participated in a faculty search in my senior year and saw 300+ candidates (surely all of whom were more astute than I) slugging it out for one (admittedly good) job. I had already rocked the GRE and had been itching to apply--but promptly threw all the apps out after that experience.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:13 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


I suspect that some of the posters here claiming that they were encouraged to go to grad school by their professors were also discouraged by other professors, who they resented and ignored and then forgot entirely.


As one of those other posters, please don't assume this applies to every college or person.
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:13 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


As an academic, how many idiotic articles like this do I have to suffer through?

"Why are you doing database programming? Don't you know that statistically most database programmers have a huge amount of debt? The median income for a database programmer is about $20k/year – that's not enough to live on! So it's certain that what you're doing is very stupid. Your choices are wrong, because my vague understanding of statistical realities trumps your personal experience and your understanding of your own situation!"
posted by koeselitz at 10:15 AM on January 16 [7 favorites]


absolutely pointless busywork like grading undergrad papers

Um, what?
posted by yoink at 10:16 AM on January 16 [11 favorites]


We're talking about people who may be entering this field in their early twenties (ie, prefrontal cortex not yet developed, still making decisions in short-term, not long-term interest).

Yeah, because people in their thirties always think in the long-term :P

/end cheeky derail.

shesdeadimalive: Thanks for that link. That's a very helpful insight. Definitely as a younger(ish) academic, I've been frustrated by what I perceive as the older generation's general lack of action on the economic problems of the academy. And, as invitapriore and others suggest, there's a very problematic psychological dynamic to the whole situation. The desire to "do what I love" (quoting myself here) does sound more than a bit pretentious now that I look at it, but besides that it also does create this sense of a quest -- something so valuable that you're willing to go through this long drawn out period of suffering and humiliation. The entrenched, on the other hand, feed into this by holding out the tenured position as the holy grail and themselves as its guardians. Some try to be kind mentors, others like to make you suffer to prove your worth (in my limited experience, they all inevitably had the same torture when they were young), but it's this really shitty power dynamic that makes it difficult to address any of the problems of the system.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:16 AM on January 16


I'm a year away from completing my PhD, and I currently have zero debt. None for undergrad (BA and BBA), none for my Masters, and none for my PhD. I will likely graduate with about 5-8K worth of debt, but that will be due to the next year being a very travel heavy year.

How did I manage this?

1) I went to a state school in state, and was in a very lucky window where the HOPE scholarship in GA covered nearly everything except books and a small amount of fees.
2) I lived at home, with my parents. I nearly went insane doing this, but I did it. They helped pay for a lot of stuff, including books, and let me live rent free at home.
3) I didn't take summers off, and worked a 20 hour a week campus job to make spending money and to put money into savings.
4) I didn't go anywhere extravagant for my Masters... I went where I got the best funding package. Ditto for my PhD.
5) I lived with my then boyfriend's family, took the bus to and from campus to save money, and used part of my savings to pay for the bits my funding didn't cover.
6) I got a 35 hour a week office job half way through my Masters, and took classes around my work schedule.
7) I took as many credit hours a semester as I could manage, on top of working and or teaching. In my undergrad, I took 5-6 a semester, in my masters 3-4 a semester, and my Phd 3-4 a semester. I was done with my coursework for my grad programs 2-3 semesters ahead of the rest of my cohort.
8) I got VERY lucky, and spent a year as a full time Instructor between my Masters and PhD, so saved up quite a lot of money.
9) PhD has been more of the same. The most expensive thing for this will be my research trips this year.
10) I have a husband who makes a living wage (and isn't an academic) who pays our rent and heath insurance (and food), and I have a job tutoring on the side that makes me 400$ a month that covers our utilities most months.


So that's it. That's what it took for me to finish (hopefully) virtually debt free 4 degrees, and still will have savings in place when I leave to enter the job market, all before turning 35. I'm never going to be rich. I'm a historian, which has never been a well paying job, and honestly, if I had wanted to make money I would have gotten an MBA or a Masters in Marketing and stayed with the company I was with during my Masters. But I didn't want to.
posted by strixus at 10:18 AM on January 16 [6 favorites]


jeffburdges: Academia professional societies are run by academics with permanent jobs and little incentive to rock the boat, warn the younger academics, etc. Yes, individually faculty will warn students about career path issues, but the societies won't take collective that sends a uniform message backed by evidence.

Even if they did, the kids won't listen, thinking that such a statement is doubletalk for "we have it pretty good, but don't want to wreck it by flooding it with noobs so we'll warn people away".
posted by dr_dank at 10:20 AM on January 16


jetlagaddict: “As one of those other posters, please don't assume this applies to every college or person.”

The whole point of this discussion is to assume that one's own experience at one's own school applies to every single other person in every single other school on the face of the earth. Why else would we be bombarded by an endless stream of "WHY I QUIT ACADEMIA" articles by people who apparently assume that their own experience is so important, so incredibly overbearingly all-encompassing, that not only does everyone else want to hear about it, but anyone who disagrees and stays in academia is some kind of idiot to be condescended to?
posted by koeselitz at 10:21 AM on January 16 [7 favorites]


Admiral Haddock: Yes.

I never had any faculty encourage me to go to grad school when I was an undergraduate, probably because even though I was a good student, I was not a particularly memorable or noticeable one, at least in most of my classes. It wasn't until I entered a Master's program that I became a "good student." Faculty there encouraged me to continue on to PhD programs -- IF that was what I wanted to do -- but were all very clear about the challenges that I would face and they also suggested that even though I'd been working hard and doing well, things would only get harder.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:23 AM on January 16


A history professor friend of mine used to tell his students that earning a PhD and landing a tenure track job was like running a marathon. Now he tells them it is like winning a marathon.
posted by LarryC at 10:26 AM on January 16 [20 favorites]


quoted in article: “Professional suicide is what graduate students are already committing on a daily basis as they confront the reality of Ph.D.s that cannot be turned into meaningful work, and the looming default on what are often hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans.”

tylerkaraszewski: “Why do people keep signing up for these programs?”

Either a Slate article is terrible and wrong and naively quoted a marketing line from somebody looking to hawk their services to an unwitting public, or hundreds of thousands of people are all complete idiots who have no idea what they're doing.

I'm sure it's the second one. Slate could never be wrong.
posted by koeselitz at 10:27 AM on January 16 [4 favorites]


One of my major problems with academia, after two years in a PhD program where I'm actually managing to support myself and not take on any additional debt beyond what I accrued getting my masters in Library Science, is that it always seems to take on a personal, moral dimension. A student not wanting to be poor forever, or be exploited for labor, is seen as not wanting to pay one's dues instead of a legitimate issue of fairness. I would join a GA union in a second, if that was an option, but the irony is that a bunch of overworked people competing for the same set of limited positions probably aren't the best group to organize. At least in a car factory everyone's generally working towards the same goal.

Even with a moderate number of successes, a decent CV, and good prospects for next year in terms of research and GAship opportunities, I'm still leaning towards exiting after I finish up this semester.
posted by codacorolla at 10:29 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


As a Ph.D. candidate in the humanities with full knowledge of how terrible the job market has been and will be, and of the very high interest rates for graduate student loans....why would anyone ever, ever take on that much debt?

Pretty much what MartinWisse said. The narrative of education uplifting the middle classes is especially powerful and in my experience, it's middle class parents who are particularly unprepared in terms of savings or preparing their children to be competitive college and graduate school candidates, who still assume that higher ed debt looks something like it did in the 70s, 80s, or even late 90s. Our professors are more likely to be coming from financial circumstances that are better than ours; they don't really get what it's like to be a middle class kid in the Ivory Tower either.

For what it's worth, I did pretty much the same as strixus, but a lot of it depends on your state and the financial situation of your parents and, frankly, how giving they are. Lived at home for most of college (but paid for all my own books and commuting-related expenses), went to a state school, graduated in 3 years while working, worked extra jobs during grad school while also teaching. Still had about 45k in debt upon graduation from my MFA program (though almost all of it was from undergrad). State school in NJ is fucking expensive.

My husband comes from better means, though, and paid off a bunch of my debt. So that helps.

He also dropped out of grad school after a semester when his mother renegged on a deal to pay for it, because he didn't want the debt. It was really, really hard, because it made him really happy. But it didn't make any financial sense to take out 100k for a masters in history. So.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:37 AM on January 16


theatro, are you me?

I am a natural pessimist and financially paranoid, and I had no fantasies of owning a house or having children in my early to mid 20s, so I approached graduate school with the attitude that I could be a failed academic and my life would still turn out ok, which is why I didn't get a PhD in biology or physics. And life turned out ok.

But I think part of the problem is that 20 year olds have no idea what jobs exist. I myself thought, "I have to finish my PhD. I have no backup plan." With the benefit of 15 years of perspective, I know what other professional possibilities exist, I have more confidence in my personal flexibility, and my temperament has moderated enoug that I don't need to have a research job (though even my latest job is research-y).

But look, who is going to tell you that the job of "market analyst" exists? And why would you want that job, anyway? I had no idea what a management consultant did or even what it paid. When you're 18-24, the only people you know are the people who are in school or still hanging around near campus, so they're either students or have a fairly generic job. All of the grad aho dropouts I saw made me think, "I don't want to be that person." But that's because the ones who quit to go to med school or got really well compensated in industry were the ones I DIDN'T see.

Professionals, in my experience, also only think individually, not systemically. Professors care about their own students and possibly their own departments, but don't think about how flooding the market with PhDs that are doing their research instead of hiring postdocs affects things, much like doctors care about their patients but don't think about the overall health care market (ie, the patients they AREN'T seeing).
posted by deanc at 10:41 AM on January 16 [7 favorites]


Things are not generally so bad in the sciences, where departments need to compete for a limited supply of the actually decent much less really good graduate students, and there are multiple products that we can produce that people are willing to pay for. However, there are still plenty of specific professors within otherwise nice departments, specific departments within otherwise nice fields, and indeed entire fields that are impossible for a graduate student to negotiate anything not deeply shitty either because what they produce in that context is so de-valued and/or replaceable that they have no leverage or the employer are so deeply unhealthy as to be incapable of acting in their own best interest by shaping up in such a way as to attract valuable students. The problem in this article and all the other ones about economic exploitation of graduate students is founded in how undergraduate typically act in ways that horrendously ill-advised to their interests.

Both in the sciences and elsewhere, one of the big transitions from undergraduate life to graduate school is one that no one really warns you about, where as an undergrad your success is the end goal of most everyone around you with power over you, while as a graduate student you are almost always simply a means to some other end. It is a tricky new dynamic that you suddenly need to negotiate the moment you start interviewing, where for the department you will be a means of cheaply supporting professors who bring in cash or a means of cheaply instructing students who bring in cash. While for professors you could be a means of establishing pecking order in the department by supervising your teaching, a means of cheaply producing research with tools that are committed to sticking around for a while, a means of expanding their research community, or generally all of the above; what you aren't is the customer like you were in undergrad, you are the product being sold by you. This is a very different dynamic and you have to act like it to protect your interests.

To that end, any letter that you get from an institution offering you a chance at an advanced academic degree but not enough funding for both tuition and a plausibly livable stipend, is not an acceptance letter, it is an advertisement, and the product will be shitty. An advanced academic degree that you pay for will, in addition to driving you into debt that the degree will not help you pay off, make you an exploited stooge, and just like everywhere else, no one respects an exploited stooge in academia. An adviser who is desperate enough to take their failure to thrive and failure to fund their work out of the asses of their graduate students is an adviser who cannot be expected to give a sufficient shit about you to be worth your while; and a department that is craven enough to do the same also does not give a sufficient shit about you to be reasonably expected to further your interests. Similarly, any academic field without sufficient funding to do something as fucking basic as paying its graduate students a livable wage for their labor in the form of either teaching or research is not a field worth joining for anyone but the independently wealthy and hobby minded. Not only is an advanced academic degree without funding is a miserable existence, but it will also inevitably not result in the reward of a career that academia is designed to provide, it will give you an academic hobby. Not all academic degrees are created equal and an adviser/department/field that cannot get their shit together enough to pay you will be an adviser/department/field that cannot be taken seriously by the people you would want to pay you in a career. That is an adviser/department/field that cannot be reasonably expected to train you in an economically viable skill set, much less help you prepare for a career more successful than their own.

Also, before some doe-eyed undergrad stops by to extol the virtues of sacrificing for what you believe in, joining an academic field under exploitative conditions will only ever hurt it. Inevitably, the most important thing you as a voluntarily exploited graduate student would accomplish for the study of whatever would be to push it further towards being dominated exclusively by those with more money than sense rather than those with genuine merit. Whether one has more money or less sense, the sacrifices that should be made for academic fields are ones that must be made by those with the ability to make meaningful and beneficial ones, like universities, funding agencies and the independently wealthy - not vulnerable students. As a prospective student you only really have the power inherent in what you are willing to consent to, and that power is considerable. It helps no one for you to use it to enable the exploitation of the vulnerable.

All that said, graduate school with genuine funding and an outlook that includes self-respect is pretty much the most awesome thing ever.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:45 AM on January 16 [9 favorites]


Here, by the way, is a useful overview of some of the actual facts and figures about graduate student finances. It's worth noting that a majority of Humanities PhDs still actually graduate debt-free, and that average debt load for Humanities PhDs is on the high side among PhDs in general. If you are doing a PhD and racking up huge levels of debt to make that happen you are definitely in the minority of your US peers and you should certainly be thinking hard about your options.
posted by yoink at 10:49 AM on January 16 [7 favorites]


I've started to feel some (light) pressure to get a Master's because many of the younger folks in my company have grad degrees or extra licensing of some kind. It wouldn't add anything to my skills (which, like most work skills, were acquired post-college) but would look more prestigious for my company. My boss actually thought I had one (she didn't look at that part of my resume too closely), and I sometimes wonder if I would have gotten the job without that mistake on her part.

If I were in college now, I'd be giving it serious thought. Though maybe not a PhD. But even aside from finances, it would have been a real sacrifice to do two more years of school; I was so ready to get out, and work, and stop worrying about grades.
posted by emjaybee at 10:50 AM on January 16


All that said, graduate school with genuine funding and an outlook that includes self-respect is pretty much the most awesome thing ever.

Although I will say from recent experience that it helps to have a project that wasn't a novel thing pushed by a post doc who ran out the door as soon as the second paper stealthed through review. Otherwise, it would have been grand (still wouldn't have gone on to do a PhD, I am not liking the looks of the post-doc market right now).
posted by Slackermagee at 10:52 AM on January 16


why would anyone ever, ever take on that much debt?
Oh the fucking cynicism of these threads. It took me years, but I did it. I have well in excess of $100k in debt for a doctorate in the humanities. But for that, I have a wonderful job at a top school


And everyone will have the same experience. Because of all them thar top schools.

It used to be an education was what the better off provided to their children so that they could continue to be better off.

Now the better off are back in that position - the child doesn't need to have the yoke of debt for the education.
posted by rough ashlar at 10:53 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


It's not like it was magic money in 80s academe, either.
Through a fluke of being from a well-off family and very very good at standardized testing, I squeaked into a top-2-in North-America liberal arts school. My parents abandoned paying for it because of my major choice, but I made do involving some very sketchy jobs. I paid for school in cash - literally bundles of bills.
Somehow, having finished my honors thesis but not graduated, I also got into an Ivy for grad school. Tiny scholarship from the professional association in my area of interest. I was trying to work full-time in academic publishing (where my office was encouraging my studies and mostly allowed me to schedule around classes). Then I looked at the numbers: in 1986, 4% of tenured faculty in my field (in North America) were female. I believe of that hundred or so, 3 were gay, and all had come out AFTER achieving tenure. I went as far as my MA and left, feeling like an academic failure. I moved into IT. No one cared that I was queer; it might even have been an asset.
The percentage of tenured women in my field now? 3%.
posted by Dreidl at 10:58 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


*NB. UK-based humanities PhD with full funding, equivalent to £15,000 pa.*

For most of my PhD cohorts it was neither a case of doing something that they love (though obviously you do have to be pro-research as an occupation), nor was it the promise of tenure or equivalent job (because most PhD candidates are not naive).

It was a mixture of circumstances that led to me and many of my contemporaries to choose to persue a PhD:

1. I graduated from my undergraduate degree in 2008. The words 'credit crunch' were the buzz words of the year. I actually managed to find 2 good jobs in fields I was interested in and yet together they still did not provide me with enough income to move out of my parents' house. I signed up for an MA in order to qualify for a full-time, reasonably paid, permanent position.

2. During my (vocational!) MA, which had a great track record for graduate employment, a lot of government funding was cut in the in the industry I was skilling up for. I had 3 unpaid internships by this point. I applied to one job that I was qualified for and was beaten to the post by my own MA tutor! (They had cut the MA degree just before I left.)

3. When I started my PhD, I was 24. Most people I knew were still interning - I was ahead of the curve because I was being compensated for my work. Now circumstances have changed, most people I know have moved up and are saving, getting married, having kids even... It is only now, at 26, that I feel like the pack has pulled away from me.

I still enjoy my work, I'm relatively successful at it, but my priority is to finish ASAP so I can discover what my next job will be.

Also, I'm really bad at maths.
posted by dumdidumdum at 10:58 AM on January 16


Missing from many of these discussions is a stark look at the alternatives for people who can't get hired at decent jobs post-undergraduate. They're not always giving up a higher paying job or years of valuable work experience. The alternative is often socially isolating under- or un-employment.

I was encouraged to get a PhD in Anthropology and English. Never warned away from it by anyone. Was warned away from an MFA, though.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:59 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


This was on Jessamyn's Facebook wall the other day, and it really hit home with me, as one of those people who always wanted to get a PhD but didn't because of basically the reasons from this quote.

"By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, [Do What You Love] distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace."

-Miya Tokumitsu
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:00 AM on January 16 [24 favorites]


"Here, by the way, is a useful overview of some of the actual facts and figures about graduate student finances. It's worth noting that a majority of Humanities PhDs still actually graduate debt-free, and that average debt load for Humanities PhDs is on the high side among PhDs in general. If you are doing a PhD and racking up huge levels of debt to make that happen you are definitely in the minority of your US peers and you should certainly be thinking hard about your options."

Wow, that link really should be front and center in all of these discussions for those of us without the context to really know the Humanities graduate market, particularly these three graphs for this conversation.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:01 AM on January 16 [6 favorites]


Wow, that link really should be front and center in all of these discussions for those of us without the context to really know the Humanities graduate market, particularly these three graphs for this conversation.

Yes. One thing they demonstrate at a glance is that the link-baity headline for the Slate piece ("Even Ph.D.s Who Got “Full Funding” Have Huge Amounts of Debt") is just ridiculously misleading. Clearly "fully funded" Ph.D.s who have "huge amounts of debt" are extreme statistical outliers.
posted by yoink at 11:05 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


From the article:

> "... while there are a healthy number of “$0” entries ... the most common answers looked to be in the $20,000 to $40,000 range ... A shocking number of users also report $100,000 and up ..."

According to the most recent statistics I could easily find, total U.S. consumer debt is now $3.07 trillion. I believe that's somewhere around $25,000 per household.

So, yes, this sounds about right and is a terrible problem that desperately needs to be addressed, but I'm not sure this is evidence that the "Ph.D." cohort is doing any better or any worse than the the "non-Ph.D." cohort.
posted by kyrademon at 11:10 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Part of this whole discussion that I think people tend to ignore is that there are a plethora of career tracks that require extensive higher education and offer a lifetime of intellectual challenge and stimulation while providing good incomes and good job prospects. Most PhD types could learn about anything they set their mind to. So become something that genuinely contributes to society and gives you a good paycheck while still being academically interesting. Become a doctor or an engineer or a speech path or a computer scientist. You can still read Joyce after 5:00, and you won't have all those nasty red numbers in your bank account.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:10 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


I am simultaneously following a discussion of this same article over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed boards, which is populated by academics. I am struck by how many people with huge debt and no realistic job prospects are still arguing that no, it was not all a big mistake, because, passion.
posted by LarryC at 11:17 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


davejay: So, genuine question: if you truly love what you do, is it possible to pursue it and participate in it without a PhD, even if the potential paychecks/other rewards are much lower, or is not having a PhD crippling to entry (even adjacently) into the field?

Well, as a biologist, I'd say that you can find jobs, even really cool jobs, with a bachelors degree (although it can be tricky to actually get one of them in this economy). However, they almost without exception pay like ass. Most of the biological technician jobs I saw paid around ~$18-23k/year, although at least you'll usually get benefits if you find a full-time one (a lot of them are government jobs, which are usually required to offer them by law). And there is no prospect for advancement, ever. Plus, people look askance at you if you're a technician for too long; it's not really something you're supposed to do forever. You are strongly encouraged to eventually proceed with your career path. Fortunately, if you're lucky, your graduate stipend will actually pay about as well as any of the jobs did.

So, you can be a biologist without a PhD, for a while. But eventually need or the lack of stability in technician jobs will drive you to either get one (or maybe a masters, which is somewhere in between in terms of your prospects), or not be a biologist any longer.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:18 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


"So, yes, this sounds about right and is a terrible problem that desperately needs to be addressed, but I'm not sure this is evidence that the "Ph.D." cohort is doing any better or any worse than the the "non-Ph.D." cohort."

The article is drawing from a population that can be reasonably expected to have dramatically non-representative self-selecting effects. Its the $50,000+ outliers in this graph who have the problem that they enabled as love-struck undergrads.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:18 AM on January 16


I am struck by how many people with huge debt and no realistic job prospects are still arguing that no, it was not all a big mistake, because, passion.

Ho ho, how foolish of people to think that any value other than monetary reward could possibly matter!
posted by yoink at 11:19 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


> Clearly "fully funded" Ph.D.s who have "huge amounts of debt" are extreme statistical outliers.

And here I thought the fact that only about half of fully-funded PhDs are reporting "no debt" was appalling enough. No comment on how subjective "huge debt" is, but it's not like this Slate piece and the associated discussion came out of nowhere.

I'm in the "this is a reflection of how society values particular knowledge/skills" camp, so I won't repeat any of those points, but it's still pretty tragic to at least consider the range of exploitation aimed at people's reasonably misguided attempts to better themselves.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 11:24 AM on January 16


I would join a GA union in a second, if that was an option, but the irony is that a bunch of overworked people competing for the same set of limited positions probably aren't the best group to organize. At least in a car factory everyone's generally working towards the same goal.

We went through a failed organising campaign and, while I'm glad we tried, I can't help but think it's the thing that separates me from the people in this thread talking about how wonderful graduate school is given 'real' funding (which I have, btw). I was not this bitter and deeply cynical when I started grad school. I mean, I knew the economic realities of my subject, where the department justifies its existence by teaching pre-reqs for other majors, but I clung to some small shred of hope the university thought our intellectual output was at least mildly interesting.
posted by hoyland at 11:29 AM on January 16


"Ho ho, how foolish of people to think that any value other than monetary reward could possibly matter!"

We live in a society where a certain amount of money, that does change based on location and family status but not 'amount of passion', is a necessary prerequisite for basic fucking human dignity. To call the living wage denied to so many a 'reward' is to demean everyone but the independently wealthy and enable poverty with bullshit. We're not talking about people giving up their Vale vacations or second homes but their access to things like basic nutrition, healthcare, financial services, and housing to support fantasy careers built on their suffering rather than any real sustainable foundation.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:34 AM on January 16 [7 favorites]


I dropped out of a prestigious, "fully-funded" PhD program.

The very first seeds of doubt were planted when I was encouraged in my first semester "not to foreground" my hopes of practical applications (community work) rather than die-hard commitment to the tenure process.

The seeds sprouted in my third semester when I learned the reality behind the hand-wavey excuse, "it's just the guild reproducing the guild for the sake of the guild."

The flowers blossomed into bitter fruits when I learned that my field major had been eliminated because it had only existed as a holding pattern for faculty who were gunning for someone else's job. I was dismissively transferred into another, unrelated field, where I became psychologically unstable and angry on a daily basis. So, I suppose I was equally dismissive when I transferred myself out of that poverty-stricken madhouse and back into the work that I so deeply love.

I was raised by academics to believe that if you really, truly love something you go and earn a PhD in it and research it to death. You cannot imagine how liberating it was to discover that perhaps the truth is rather, "If you really, truly love something you go and do it."

I have no regrets.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 11:34 AM on January 16 [7 favorites]


It's not like it was magic money in 80s academe, either.
Through a fluke of being from a well-off family and very very good at standardized testing, I squeaked into a top-2-in North-America liberal arts school. My parents abandoned paying for it because of my major choice, but I made do involving some very sketchy jobs. I paid for school in cash - literally bundles of bills.


School in the 80s was soooooooo much cheaper than it was even for millennials. I knew some drug dealers in undergrad and none of them were paying all of their tuition from it.

Ho ho, how foolish of people to think that any value other than monetary reward could possibly matter!


And there are problems with saying "only academia, only passion for those who can afford it," namely that it sticks the middle class with drudgery and misery and limits the perspective of creative and analytic work. The Ivory Tower is rich and white enough as is, frankly.

For what it's worth, graduated from a largely commuter state school in 2006, was encouraged by various professors to pursue all sorts of "useless" graduate degrees (in English, library science, philosophy, and poetry) and never warned away from any of it, even an MFA. Well, the director of the writing center where I worked did mention that comp and rhetoric was where the money was, but there were plenty of poets who pooh poohed that. It's a hard choice for a 22 year old to make, and I had no way of knowing that none of it would feed into my ultimate career in the long run.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:36 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Blasdelb: “Things are not generally so bad in the sciences, where departments need to compete for a limited supply of the actually decent much less really good graduate students, and there are multiple products that we can produce that people are willing to pay for.”

I hesitate to do that obnoxious "fixed that for you" thing, but the "multiple products that we can produce that people are willing to pay for" thing seems pretty silly to me. Try comparatively massive amounts of federal grant money floating around.
posted by koeselitz at 11:37 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


...the "multiple products that we can produce that people are willing to pay for" thing seems pretty silly to me.

It's not. A lot of universities and research centers get a healthy revenue stream from IP that came out of their labs. And there are plenty of science-related industry jobs that need PhDs, too.
posted by gurple at 11:38 AM on January 16


Metafilter: there were plenty of poets who pooh poohed that
posted by benzenedream at 11:38 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


One more personal anecdote thrown into the pile:

I went to grad school for my (natural science) PhD, oh about 20 years ago (that is, 20 years ago exactly, I was midway through my program). I was provided full funding year-round, which worked out to something like $16K, and was officially a half-time position, I believe. My department managed this through a mix of TAs, RAs, and having me work on managing this whole "web page" thing for them.

When I finished up, I had a fair bit of technical knowledge, but no clue how to go about anything else: doing up a paper on my own (though I'd been a coauthor on some by my advisor), doing a proposal, really, any of the practical aspects of academia. (This is a personal issue, not one with my department, apparently, as many of my colleagues learned all that stuff.) So I went and taught at a community college for a couple of years (before coming back to my department to do research support). Pay was not an issue, as I had zero debt. I was single, so the need to care for a family was never there--I get that I was incredibly lucky in this, but it seemed to be the standard for the department; the grad students with kids had more trouble, but no one seemed to be going into debt. I have no idea which conditions varied to put these other people in such dire straits.

Current and former grad students at my department have been in a debate over whether our department does enough to warn incoming students about the job market, pretty much ever since I was there. I think that generally the students try to make it clear to prospective newcomers what it's like, but everyone thinks they'll make it.

Now, though, I find that my ability to learn material without figuring out how to *use* it has come back to bite me again. In the intervening years, I've picked up a MAcc and MBA degree as well, but can't find a better job than entry-level administration, working alongside undergrads fresh out of school.
posted by Four Ds at 11:40 AM on January 16


me: “...the 'multiple products that we can produce that people are willing to pay for' thing seems pretty silly to me.”

gurple: “It's not. A lot of universities and research centers get a healthy revenue stream from IP that came out of their labs. And there are plenty of science-related industry jobs that need PhDs, too.”

Which is why the massive amount of federal money specified only for so-called "STEM" fields is kind of silly.
posted by koeselitz at 11:50 AM on January 16


We live in a society where a certain amount of money, that does change based on location and family status but not 'amount of passion', is a necessary prerequisite for basic fucking human dignity. To call the living wage denied to so many a 'reward' is to demean everyone but the independently wealthy and enable poverty with bullshit. We're not talking about people giving up their Vale vacations or second homes but their access to things like basic nutrition, healthcare, financial services, and housing to support fantasy careers built on their suffering rather than any real sustainable foundation.

Blasdelb, I have no idea what strange ideas you're reading into my comment that elicits this response. All I can say is that none of them seem remotely like any beliefs I hold or to be at all implied by what I wrote--which was simply a complaint that scoffing at "passion" for academic study as if were self-evidently valueless seems rather reductive.

It appears that you decided an inevitable corollary of that position is that "passion" should be the only reward for academic study. This does not follow logically, was not asserted by me and is not my personal belief. You are arguing, therefore, with a straw man.
posted by yoink at 11:50 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


[Do What You Love] distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it.

I definitely find that people whose jobs are lifestyle choices/passions tend to have much less interest or sympathy with the economic situation of those who work at jobs-for-pay-type jobs. There's a lot of "I work/worked long hours in miserable conditions so I could make it in life. Why shouldn't everyone else?"

I also find some self-flagellation over the value of their 5-classes-a-semester adjuncting work, as though any other kind of work for pay would be degrading. And while I think good-minded people try to separate their own life decisions from those made by others, it is hard to maintain that mindset without thinking that everyone else's jobs are somehow less than worthy.
posted by deanc at 11:54 AM on January 16


koeselitz: Which is why the massive amount of federal money specified only for so-called "STEM" fields is kind of silly.

I don't see how that follows. Can you expand on that? Federal money makes those programs possible. The fact that they pull in some money from IP revenue streams is great, and it helps support both science programs and other programs at those universities. Are you suggesting that those revenue streams ought to be sufficient for the sciences? I assure you, they're not remotely sufficient.
posted by gurple at 11:56 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


The operative word of my comment was the word "only."
posted by koeselitz at 11:56 AM on January 16


Which is why the massive amount of federal money specified only for so-called "STEM" fields is kind of silly.

The odds of submitting a successful grant application which receives funding is very very low. The system also presupposes that many graduates of PhD programs in the sciences DON'T go into academia, because there is not enough funding to support them all in a career applying for research grants.
posted by deanc at 11:58 AM on January 16


(Yeah, I probably didn't express myself well. As an academic, and as a human being, generally I think there ought to be a lot more government money heading to universities. I just am constantly baffled by the apparently unanimous belief that only "STEM" is worthy of funding, and even it isn't worthy of much since it's supposed to make money on the side. That idea is what I'm against.)
posted by koeselitz at 11:59 AM on January 16


And here I thought the fact that only about half of fully-funded PhDs are reporting "no debt" was appalling enough. No comment on how subjective "huge debt" is, but it's not like this Slate piece and the associated discussion came out of nowhere.

No, but that headline flatly mischaracterizes the reality of the situation. It's the equivalent of a "this ordinary household product is KILLING YOUR CHILDREN" headline, when the reality is that some study has shown that for some small percentage of people who use ten times the recommended amount of the substance there is a minor increase in lifetime risk of incurring some relatively rare disease.

Most Ph.D. students incur no debt during their Ph.D.s. Of those who do incur debt, the majority do not incur very significant levels of debt. Ph.D. students who are "fully funded" AND who incur very significant levels of debt are, by any possible understanding of the term, "statistical outliers." Thus Slate's headline is absurdly misleading.

To say that is not to say that everything is hunky-dory in higher education and that there are no reasons not to think very seriously before doing a Ph.D. etc. etc. etc.--it is simply to say that "Even Ph.D.s Who Got “Full Funding” Have Huge Amounts of Debt" is a grossly misleading summation of the current situation in US higher education. It is a description of the situation of a small fraction of current Ph.D students.
posted by yoink at 12:00 PM on January 16 [4 favorites]


"I hesitate to do that obnoxious "fixed that for you" thing, but the "multiple products that we can produce that people are willing to pay for" thing seems pretty silly to me. Try comparatively massive amounts of federal grant money floating around."

Yeah, the People of the United States are willing to pay for advancements in science in a way that pretty much no one but humanities scholars or undergrads, in their indirect and necessarily ill-informed way, are willing to for novel work in the humanities. Whether or not that is right is immaterial to the fact that it is true or that fact that it can be brutal.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:00 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


I just am constantly baffled by the apparently unanimous belief that only "STEM" is worthy of funding, and even it isn't worthy of much since it's supposed to make money on the side. That idea is what I'm against

In part it is precisely because of the problem that we see consistently in these discussions: that our culture is reducing the idea of "value" almost entirely to monetary terms. The idea that you might choose a course of study (even as an undergraduate) simply because you hope it will enrich your understanding of the world (and not because it will "enrich" you in financial terms) is seen as hopelessly, and laughably, naive.

Universities have, unfortunately, contributed to this by leaning heavily on the "look at what we contribute to the State/National economy!" line when they try to shake the various governmental money-trees for more funding. It's all "look at the shiny thing we invented and how much money it's making." For the people in the Humanities, Social Sciences and non-applied sciences there's a distinct chill in the room whenever we have these discussions about how we should "sell" Higher Education to the people with the purse strings.
posted by yoink at 12:07 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


There is federal funding for the arts and humanities. But yes, not nearly as much as in STEM fields. BUT...most of the federal funding for STEM stuff is not so simple as "here's a bunch of money to do your cool academic thing." The government has a huge financial stake in that research that it doesn't have when it comes to the humanities - namely, licensing and purchasing.

There are two primary ways the government funds research. One is through basically pure research grants. These are given to a university or research center only. The university does the research - but, and this is the real kicker, since it is funded by the government, the government don't have to pay any royalties or licensing fees on whatever product or IP is developed from that funding.

The other way is through SBIR/STTR grants, which are given to universities that work with small businesses. It's a way for the government to boost small business while also getting people do develop the products they need. Most 3rd phase SBIR grants make it that far because they are produced and sold back to some branch of the government, usually the military, and the government obviously gets all of the product more or less at cost that way. So it's a very small investment by the government with potentially huge financial savings in the long run.

The point is basically that the STEM funding is not so much an ideological thing for the government as far as funding goes so much as a financial thing. STEM funding is an investment. Arts and humanities funding is an expense, at least from the government's point of view.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:08 PM on January 16


Universities have, unfortunately, contributed to this by leaning heavily on the "look at what we contribute to the State/National economy!" line when they try to shake the various governmental money-trees for more funding.

It's not just for government money - it's how universities have to market themselves these days for recruitment. Students are more concerned about ROI than almost any other factor. They want to know what kind of income their degree is going to yield them upon graduation. It isn't wholly a bad thing. After all, self-enlightenment won't pay your rent. But I'm kind of communist so.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:11 PM on January 16


. They want to know what kind of income their degree is going to yield them upon graduation.

which makes sense when tuition for 4 years will net you well over 100k.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:15 PM on January 16


Sorry to kind of drop this here, but...every article I see like this, no matter which field it's about, just reinforces the message, to me, that we live in a time when capital is no longer willing to pay money for value. Big capital (which sadly includes the federal government and universities) is only willing to pay money for money. It has become a snake eating its own tail.

Paying money for value means paying for things that make civilization better. Paying money for value means paying people for their labour, intellectual or physical, and not requiring that labour ALSO act as a slot machine that spits out money in return for money. Paying money for value means that people can work a job for a living wage that contributes to humanity in some way, whether it is picking up the garbage off the streets, or studying the mating habits of insects, or providing a product that makes people's lives more pleasurable or less painful.

Paying money for money is the equivalent, in consumer terms, of going to a shop and insisting that the product or service not only provide value (a hot pizza, a new shirt, a massage), but that it ALSO spit out money. More money than you paid for it, preferably. Capital will no longer pay people for their talent, their contributions to humanity, their time and effort - it will only pay people who spit out dollar bills in some way, either by directly locating and harvesting money for the organization that far exceeds their own salary, or by doing work for free or at a pauper's wage, replacing the need to hire someone for actual money. Providing value is a distant second.

Every door that formerly led people to a comfortable, middle-class life and security, is now like a door on Let's Make a Deal - except not one of them contains a middle-class life and security anymore, they all contain goats. The money has been sucked up and out of those formerly-moderately-rich veins. From what I hear, all the professions have been drained to some extent - people work free or for substandard pay, or spend exorbitant sums for education, in the hopes of attaining money that seems to no longer exist.

I can only guess that we have moved away from an economy that traded money for value, and toward an economy that only trades money for more money. Only those who have money can afford to make money, and only those who can give more money than they make can make any money at all. People who have tremendous value to give to humanity, but no money, can find no one willing to pay them for it - though they are heartily welcomed to provide that value for free, for "prestige," for "passion," i.e. for fuck-all except immediate or eventual pauperism.

Where is all the money that formerly ran in those veins? Who has it? Apparently someone whose interest lies in hoarding and collecting more of it. We are left with little puddles of money here and there, and those seem to be quickly drying up. When it's all gone, will we be back to a direct barter system? Will we be writing dissertations in exchange for shelter and books? Will doctors perform surgeries in exchange for chickens and goats? How can this lead to anything but a massive societal regression?
posted by Ouisch at 12:26 PM on January 16 [28 favorites]


The scope of this problem is bigger than the academic labor market. We can't all be programmers, engineers, and entrepreneurs; not only are there limited positions and opportunities in those areas, as in all others, but there exist many very smart, capable people whose talents lie elsewhere.

It's kind of absurd to talk about the academic labor market as though it were just like any other sort of work, as though professors or graduate students have their wages set by unmediated consumer demand. The academic labor market's characteristics are strongly modulated by public policy decisions: states have cut higher education funding sharply since the recession (which was caused by insufficient regulation, entirely avoidable) and even before then, it's been on a long downward decline.

I mean, Just look at this graph. Just look at it! What is the excuse, here? Our country is wealthier than it's ever been.

There are huge failures in political leadership that need to be at the forefront of this discussion. It's simply naive to exclude that central factor. Our politicians have failed us on this matter for decades, and we're starting to see the human cost of that failure come sharply into view. We're condemning a whole generation of young people to dismal futures because it's just too fucking hard for ordinary people to understand or care about what's happening. How many great discoveries and advances of knowledge have we already given up? How much middle-class prosperity and, probably more importantly, real social mobility has been sacrificed, against the public interest, because the powerful decided that they just didn't feel like investing the public's money in the American people anymore?

Consider this. When we talk about the decline and failure of seemingly-great institutions, even nations or civilizations, we often balk at the idea that such things could happen through the negligence of the powerful. It's hard to believe that people with access to information and real decision-making power could be so irresponsible, and yet I think that's exactly the sort of thing we're seeing here.

This is getting perhaps away from the original topic, but it seems that recently politicians have found a way to sell the idea that diverting government resources, which is to say public resources, away from the public itself is not only okay but right and correct and virtuous, and that 3 trillion (!) dollars in household debt which someone mentioned upthread is a symptom of the disease.
posted by clockzero at 12:34 PM on January 16 [16 favorites]


I am not yet too old to consider going back for a PhD, and sometimes I even consider myself smart enough to do it (I do happen to have a fanatical, lifelong devotion to sliver-narrow field of interest), but with so much evidence whacking me in the face that it really stands for Penury heaping Despair I know that I'd be throwing away what appears to be a pretty good career path so far in favor of lottery odds. After all, when blustering politicians and pompous businessmen talk STEM it never includes the social sciences.

When I think of the possibility of going back to get one within the next two years, I evaluate my fears. I don't fear moving around to chase a national labor market, I don't even particularly fear making a relatively low income, I don't fear getting stuck at a "low status" institution or landing at a not-R1. I do fear the breadline, and since I am a mere mortal, my odds of landing there after my dissertation are pretty high, aren't they? Guess I should stay where I am.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 1:06 PM on January 16


It's not just for government money - it's how universities have to market themselves these days for recruitment. Students are more concerned about ROI than almost any other factor.

Oh absolutely--but that's exactly my point about the extraordinary cultural shift we've seen on this in a remarkably short time, in which the only value that gets recognized is economic value, and the notion that you might pursue a subject because it is inherently valuable to you to so is simply risible.

And I think every time a University President or a university PR campaign hits this "but look at what we contribute to the economy" note, they just contribute to a pernicious cultural flattening of value which undermines the very essence of what we mean by the idea of a "university." A university should not be a glorified technical college, but increasingly that is the way that they are seen in the wider culture and the way that they present themselves publicly.
posted by yoink at 1:07 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


I'll do it!

I think it was supposed to be insulting, and is genuinely quite ignorant--I mean, as if there's no transmission of ideas/knowledge between the academe and industry in fields like " a doctor or an engineer or a speech path or a computer scientist"?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:08 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


This year I've applied to something like 70+ different jobs. Guess how many interviews I got? 3, and I'm probably only in the running for 1 of them. And I know people with way more impressive credentials who got NO interviews. It's just brutal: there are an average of 150-200 at least applicants for every job I apply for -- even the shittiest adjunct positions. How many other fields have that kind of labor surplus?

This is something that varies really really strongly between disciplines.

I do political science and have worked in two lower-tier R1 departments... but still R1. I've been directly involved with, oh God, somewhere north of fifteen different searches. We never, ever, received 150-200 applicants. Searches in American politics typically got ~75 applicants, with at most 50 not immediately and obviously hopeless ones, and maybe 30-35 that we might have been willing to make an offer to if they were the only applicant. Searches in judicial politics or public law typically brought in ~30 applicants of which maybe 20 were potentially hireable.

Clearly "fully funded" Ph.D.s who have "huge amounts of debt" are extreme statistical outliers.

It looks like that is --correctly-- looking at debt acquired in graduate education. But it looks like TFA is counting debt from whatever source.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:12 PM on January 16 [2 favorites]


I mean, Just look at this graph. Just look at it! What is the excuse, here? Our country is wealthier than it's ever been.

Because the conservatives that run most state governments would rather watch the country burn before they let someone who is undeserving or, god forbid, black, get one ounce of help that they don't fucking earn.
posted by Talez at 1:12 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


This is reason number one why I didn't do a Ph.D
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 1:20 PM on January 16


... that they don't fucking earn.

Makers and takers, man.

Except that "maker" is defined in a way that includes all the reckless gamblers in finance. And "taker" is defined in a way that encompasses all people who spend their lives learning, teaching, writing, caring for, preserving, conserving, curating and nurturing.

What a country!
posted by R. Schlock at 1:22 PM on January 16 [2 favorites]



But, of course, it isn't true that only the very "special-est of snowflakes" are the ones who are successful.


Luck is a type of special.
posted by ocschwar at 1:23 PM on January 16


Also does anybody else remember "good debt" from guidance counselors

"It's debt, but it's good debt. It looks good to have that kind of debt."
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 1:25 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


I just am constantly baffled by the apparently unanimous belief that only "STEM" is worthy of funding

Worth reading: The STEM Crisis is a Myth (IEEE Spectrum)

Companies would rather not pay STEM professionals high salaries with lavish benefits, offer them training on the job, or guarantee them decades of stable employment. So having an oversupply of workers, whether domestically educated or imported, is to their benefit. It gives employers a larger pool from which they can pick the “best and the brightest,” and it helps keep wages in check. No less an authority than Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, said as much when in 2007 he advocated boosting the number of skilled immigrants entering the United States so as to “suppress” the wages of their U.S. counterparts, which he considered too high.

Governments also push the STEM myth because an abundance of scientists and engineers is widely viewed as an important engine for innovation and also for national defense. And the perception of a STEM crisis benefits higher education, says Ron Hira, because as “taxpayers subsidize more STEM education, that works in the interest of the universities” by allowing them to expand their enrollments.

posted by ryanshepard at 1:33 PM on January 16 [7 favorites]


Not everyone who takes on a lot of debt is making a dumb decision, and I sortof resent all the comments in this thread pointing and laughing at people who have chosen to do so, assuming that it completely out of ignorance.

I can't speak to PH.D programs, but I will say that many, many law schools have generous loan forgiveness programs that entice folks to take on that much debt, because they know that if they do what they were planning to do anyway, they will never have to pay that money back. It is risky, yes, but it is not necessarily stupid, not by a long shot.
posted by likeatoaster at 1:35 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


Hi I'm 33 in a pretty well paying job and I'm applying to grad school for fall 2014 and I hate this thread!

Carry on.
posted by Riton at 1:49 PM on January 16 [6 favorites]


Riton, I'm kinda in the same boat. I'm glad I got denied when I was in my early 20s--I would have taken out debt and been in a pretty shitty situation/field/degree/program.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:56 PM on January 16


Any letter that you get from an institution offering you a chance at an advanced academic degree but not enough funding for both tuition and a plausibly livable stipend, is not an acceptance letter, it is an advertisement, and the product will be shitty.

Thanks, Blasdelb, for clarifying something I've been trying to tell students for years but couldn't enunciate. It's an advertisement. Perfect.

I'm incredibly spoiled by working in a top-5 computer science department; half of my former PhD students have tenure, and all are gainfully and rewardingly employed. Even so, I insist on having The Scary Talk with anyone who asks me for a PhD recommendation letter. Even in computer science, even a wildly successful PhD is a significant economic loss. Are you sure you wouldn't rather just make $100K/year at a nice industry job?

Now if you'll pardon me, I have to go back to reading the 200+ applications for our single faculty slot.
posted by erniepan at 2:00 PM on January 16 [12 favorites]


theatro, are you me?
I myself thought, "I have to finish my PhD. I have no backup plan."

...uh-oh, deanc, I think I very well might be you.
posted by theatro at 2:16 PM on January 16


Let's face it - the private sector is not exactly teeming with lucrative job opportunities for terminal undergraduate humanities majors. A lot of these people feel that if they ever want to make a stable middle class living and forge a career that society will respect and that they may enjoy at least a little bit, they *have* to go to graduate school. When the alternative is waiting tables for the next four years, what choice would you make?
posted by Selena777 at 2:50 PM on January 16 [4 favorites]


It gives employers a larger pool from which they can pick the “best and the brightest,” and it helps keep wages in check.

But this is the point. We need a larger pool of people who are competent at innovation. It's not mindless clerical work where you get stamped with "capable of putting words on paper that make sense" in a liberal arts degree.

There are plenty of kids who are smart, with a real aptitude, that could be great engineers given the chance. They're the ones that this lack of money needs to find its way to.
posted by Talez at 3:07 PM on January 16


> the private sector is not exactly teeming with lucrative job opportunities for terminal undergraduate humanities majors

Not necessarily. Liberal Arts is sometimes seen as a useful business degree. Critical thinking and communication is important.
posted by anthill at 3:20 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


erniepan, I've got the same feeling, especially since I've just agreed to be on one of our search committees.

I teach in the social sciences, but I got a law degree before my PhD and probably would have had a greater earning potential if I'd gone into practice even in today's crappy legal job market. Still, I try and give the scary talk to any of my students who want to go on to PhDs or law school. I generally encourage those interested in doing a Master's degree, especially if it's in a quasi-professional field. At least in the public service in Canada, the Master's is the new BA in that it's a requirement for advancement beyond a certain point.
posted by sfred at 3:42 PM on January 16


sfred, that's funny because the aforementioned vocational training I had after my PhD was a law degree
posted by exogenous at 4:49 PM on January 16


Ray Walston, Luck Dragon: "It's debt, but it's good debt. It looks good to have that kind of debt."

From the standpoint of calculating someone's creditworthiness, I can see that as true. If an applicant for a mortgage has $50k in student loan debt, that wouldn't be a problem as long as the payments are current. If that person has $50k racked up on credit cards, that is going to be a red flag in spite of the fact that its exactly the same amount of money.

Of course, this narrow definition of good is meaningless if you have no means to pay it back, but there you have it.
posted by dr_dank at 5:34 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


This is bullshit. A living wage for a single adult in Alameda County, home of UC Berkeley, is $23,000/year. Step 1 GSR at Berkeley is $33,000/year. Assuming they're on a 10-month contract (i.e., no summer salary), that places them at $27,500. Even if a PhD took somebody 10 years to finish - the point at Berkeley when you get kicked out - you would have to be spending an extra $10,000 per year to get into 6 figure debt. Note that GSRs don't pay into SS, so the take-home pay is actually higher than it looks. Is anybody living well like that? No. Are grad students doing work that should be valued twice that much? Probably. But anybody who actually had a full ride who ends up with >$100,000 debt from grad school is wholly responsible for that financial burden.
posted by one_bean at 5:51 PM on January 16 [2 favorites]


Berkley is famously generous with their stipends compared to cost of living, so much so that my adviser (who did his PhD work there) remarked on it when we were discussing how much I was effectively paid.
posted by codacorolla at 6:02 PM on January 16


Berkley is famously generous with their stipends compared to cost of living, so much so that my adviser (who did his PhD work there) remarked on it when we were discussing how much I was effectively paid.

I assume since he was your advisor he went there when the state still actually funded it. Every report I saw showed that, without accounting for cost of living, in both the humanities and the sciences, stipends at Berkeley were comparable to or lower than other public universities. Take Wisconsin, whose minimum GSR is $29,492.
posted by one_bean at 6:09 PM on January 16


Hi, I posted this last year, when my confidence, intellectual faculties and bank account were lying utterly destroyed by grad school-exacerbated depression, and all I could think about was my failure to thrive in my program, the possibility of bankruptcy, and the much more distant possibilities of suicide or enlisting in the military as a last-ditch effort to recover some sense of self-worth and self-discipline. (Not explicitly mentioned in that question: I've dedicated the last few years to researching dead soldiers. Those thoughts went entirely against everything I believe in. And yet I was desperate enough to see it as an entirely legitimate way out, if it didn't kill me first. I have never admitted this to anyone until now.) Anyways, all around me all I could see were others succeeding, though I acknowledge I was probably totally blind to their respective struggles. It wasn't the absolute worst time of my life, but incredibly close, and I saw no end in sight.

Looking back on that question, I notice a huuuuuuuuge detail that I left out. I did not once mention my part-time library reference job, very much in the discipline but entirely unrelated to my research, that I have diligently shown up to and thoroughly enjoyed for the previous five years – and damn, I always felt that I was tremendously good at it. Why did I feel that was of no relevance to my situation when writing that question? Why was I completely unable to see that I possessed great strength and knowledge doing something I love? My MA felt like it was the only thing that mattered in my life, and my self-worth was entirely tied to it. I completely tunnel-visioned out of all of the other things I had going on because I felt like a perpetual failure every. single. day. with respect to my research. Such feelings are so, so common, and I wish my future self was able to warn me in the terms I laid out in that question.

I am still not done my thesis, five months past my September deadline. About two weeks after I posted that question, a full-time position (the only one I was qualified for) opened up in my library, and the years of diligent hard work that I had put in there paid off. I am still in academia, but oh wow, the library system is a MUCH better fit for me. I still see all my friends from my graduate program (and get to help them out with their research), I get to work with so many incredible people, I don't have to pay tuition as a full-time employee, and I'm still doing tremendously relevant work in the discipline, applying everything I learned in grad school to a realm I hadn't really considered because I never thought I had a chance at this job. I'm probably the last in my cohort to finish up, but I am so immensely thankful that things turned around so quickly and perfectly. I absolutely adore what I do, and recognize the combination of incredible luck and timing that led to my hiring.

I never want to feel the way I did when I posted that question ever again. I got through it. While grad school mental health struggles are inextricably linked to the precarious economic prospects discussed throughout this thread, I wish there wasn't such shame associated with opening up about these experiences. I really appreciate everyone who has contributed such comments to this thread. I just wish that these discussions were taken a bit more seriously, by both faculty members and potential students who may not think that could happen to them.
posted by avocet at 6:09 PM on January 16 [8 favorites]


Ho ho, how foolish of people to think that any value other than monetary reward could possibly matter!

It's not about your failure to get a monetary reward. It's about your choice to take on a huge monetary penalty to pursue something that is ultimately difficult to distinguish from a hobby.
posted by Hatashran at 6:11 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


(For the record, my program was funded, but I couldn't finish before my funding ran out. It is the hardest thing I have ever done and I will be tremendously proud of myself when it is over. Also, it is so much easier to write when it doesn't feel like my life depends on it.)
posted by avocet at 6:14 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Sorry, I forgot that GSR rates are given at 100%, while all GSR positions are offered at 50%. So the minimum offered stipend is about $6,000 below the livable wage for the area. Take out the transportation and medical costs (both a bus pass and the student health center are included in a "full ride") and it's close. Taking on debt is one thing, getting to over $100,000 when you are fully funded in a PhD program says more about you than it does about grad school.
posted by one_bean at 6:16 PM on January 16


Emigrate to Canada. Our grad students are ridiculously well funded- I know more than one grad student who has a combo of a SSHRC+QE2+some Gov't of Alberta funding and makes enough to buy a condo. It is insane how much better funded grad students are here compared to my decidedly top-tier doctoral experience (UW-Madison, 1986-93, and I was "funded" every semester but one- and for the record I only took on around $15,000 in loan debt most of which I probably could've avoided if I'd played my cards differently).

Then when you get your PhD, in Sociology at least, you're competing for tenure-track jobs with, say, 24 other applicants versus the 300 I was competing against when I applied for open positions at schools on par with Canadian doctoral research institutions. After I became a landed immigrant here and re-re-started my academic job search I was stunned at how small the "Canadian" first-kick-at-the-can pool I was part of. I was shortlisted at the U of Toronto- the Erindale campus, but still, U of T, arguably the most prestigious university in Canada- as one of, get this, FOURTEEN applicants.

When I got my job that I have now, I was one three shortlisted. Two were spouses and both dropped out of the competition for a spousal offer at Queen's, so I was left as the only candidate, and I got hired. I now make well over $100k a year and our semesters last 13 weeks (so we get effectively a month less teaching than I did in the States, and my salary is more than triple what I was making, in constant dollars though, at the tenure-track job I left to emigrate to Canada to join my partner here).

Long story short: I DO counsel people to apply to grad school IN CANADA. They get incredibly sweet deals and it's incredibly easier, not a slam dunk but easier, to get hired when they get out if they stay in this country.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 6:27 PM on January 16 [2 favorites]


They get incredibly sweet deals

I am immensely thankful that I was SSHRC-funded and it meant that I only had to work five hours a week instead of 20 as a condition of my funding package, but I would describe the lifestyles of my peers as anything but "incredibly sweet". I take it you meant "incredibly sweet compared to American grad students?" I totally can't comment on that...

And oh god, I wish the numbers game for tenure-track job applications was actually that good these days, for the sake of my best friends who will be on the job market soon. Triple-digit applicant counts for jobs in my discipline (obviously not sociology) at major universities are what I'm hearing.

My fingers are tightly crossed for my friends.
posted by avocet at 6:40 PM on January 16


codacorolla: "Berkley is famously generous with their stipends compared to cost of living, so much so that my adviser (who did his PhD work there) remarked on it when we were discussing how much I was effectively paid."

Ha ha ha ha ha. That's really all I have to say.

Well, I can say more. Top GSI pay is $3/hour more than I get as a senior grad student in the midwest. That extra $240/month is gone in the difference in the cost of living in about three seconds--for the rent I paid to share a bedroom in an apartment as an undergrad in Berkeley, I could have a studio apartment to myself here. It has reached the point where the funding situation is so bad that departments are having trouble recruiting students. It helps if you're one of the best departments in the world, but you can only withstand so many budget cuts.
posted by hoyland at 7:28 PM on January 16


avocet, thank you so much for that update.
posted by Austenite at 7:38 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Why do people do this? They're young, all they know is school, and they haven't the faintest idea what a boring 8-5 day job is like. Grad school sounds prestigious and like it will make you more money, and it means you don't have to find a boring real job for 3-6-whatever more years! And you'll sound like a big shot with your degree! And not to mention that these days, finding any kind of job including McDonald's seems nigh-impossible. (A friend of mine went to a job interview today and the employer said she was getting hundreds of applications a year ago, but now it's died down enough that my friend was one of the top 8.) You have to do something with yourself and if your parents aren't cool with you just living at home unemployed....

I can understand why people still do grad school, when it all looks like that.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:28 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


In my experience, entering PhD students are far from naive "special snowflakes" who think they can land a tenure-track position against the odds. They didn't need professors to warn them away and it wasn't overly encouraging professors who 'duped' them into academia. I've met extremely few humanities or social science grad student who actually believe grad school is a ticket to economic security. Most young people are well-aware that a PhD just digs you deeper into debt-peonage and leaves you (ostensibly) unprepared for and undesirable in the non-academic job market. They go in anyway, and it's not because they're a bunch of fools who bet on the wrong horse or who are afraid of the world outside the ivory tower. A few likely are, but not most.

I'd consider these few points, though much of this has already been pointed out:

1) It's not as though the job market outside of academia is fabulous. Yes, there are some jobs. But they're not great jobs, especially those available to the young. And this can be a huge blow for recent grads who have worked incredibly hard and taken pride in their intellectual accomplishments. Speaking for myself, on the one hand, I see PhD students who are doing fascinating and interesting research and are barely subsisting on their meager stipends...and on the other, I see my peers with "real" jobs working as baristas and who are barely subsisting on meager wages. Both are getting into debt, one student debt, the other credit card debt. Striving for that elusive "dream job" that is both morally/intellectually fulfilling and that pays well can feel about as unrealistic as struggling to catch a tenure-track position in academia.

2) Some people are really driven by a wild intellectual passion that consumes them body and soul. $100,000 debt? Whatever it takes! I wouldn't be surprised if some would be willing to have their legs amputated if it meant they could get back to their research. Maybe it's their passion and their doom. I don't think it's fair to judge them. They're obviously right in their judgment: no one outside of academia is going to pay them to write a massive philosophical treatise critiquing Deleuze.

3) I am not so sure the "young people make stupid decisions because they don't know better" explanation holds much water. At least in my field, most of the people entering PhD programs are closer to their late 20's and older. I'm mostly seeing people around their late 30's finishing their doctorates.
posted by adso at 8:40 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


If you want to hear the sound and fury of a tradesmen being rendered redundant, look no further than any ol thread on academia these days. The internet has made your knowledge cheap and your vocation as common as the breath beneath the particular words you choose to follow.

Everyone has opinions and assholes, and if your decide to dedicate your life to digging the fingers of your mind deep into either of these, don't be shocked that people don't care to smell your fingers. Academia is a relic of a society and social structure built on systemic lies of extreme asymmetries in power. The modus of a life is most pronounced and purely expressed in the moment of death. Here's to the end of academia as the nature of it's compact seems to be burning loud and clear in the above.

Here's to the day that passed when everyone can know anything and everything. The day to come when the institutions that cloak power, delude, misguided and misdirect the bright but threatening souls of a generation retire to history. Less bloody but as effective as war, pointless Ph.D. programs are nothing more than a technique for either burning them out or buying them off. Here's hoping today is the day those brave spirits begin to dwell towards what can be; instead of what has been.

Hopefully this next generation of potential real leaders and free thinkers will say no to being rendered politically impotent by a status quo so ruthlessly efficient at devouring the human spirit that we're left only with reason reduced to praxis. Learn how to make jets, rockets and software. Learn who the .05% are who presided over this chokehold on the bountiful potential that awaits those who can reimagine the remapping of horded resources. The endowment of Harvard alone could buy several whole generations license to ramble free for years though libraries, streets and dreams. But the man has you by the balls while you contemplate nothing or infinity missing your one opportunity to change everything as your life passes through the middle.
posted by astrobiophysican at 9:12 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


I incurred debt that was a relative fortune back in the day to get through law school. My history major was just a step to get through law school. I wasn't allowed to work although I had lots of cash jobs because I was on my own dime since I was 18 and 20 hour days/7 day work weeks were just what it took. Was it worth it? I still think so but then again my friends who became teachers are already retired with a cushy state pension....
posted by OhSusannah at 9:33 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


The endowment of Harvard alone could buy several whole generations license to ramble free for years though libraries, streets and dreams.

Last I checked all three of those were free.
posted by one_bean at 9:54 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Here's to the day that passed when everyone can know anything and everything. The day to come when the institutions that cloak power, delude, misguided and misdirect the bright but threatening souls of a generation retire to history. Less bloody but as effective as war, pointless Ph.D. programs are nothing more than a technique for either burning them out or buying them off. Here's hoping today is the day those brave spirits begin to dwell towards what can be; instead of what has been.

I don't love academia, mostly because of the economic pressures that force professors to beg for money in order to tell just-so stories to think-tanks, but you're deluded if you think an every-man approach is the right way to go. There are huge benefits to the tenure system, specifically the very reason that it was developed, which was to protect scholars against political retribution for unpopular ideas while providing them the means to conduct research.

Regardless if you're doing hard science, social science quantitative research, or non-scientific qualitative research, you are indeed learning a trade which involves precise ways of going about codifying knowledge. Publicly funded research allows you train scholars who are then able to pursue a wide range of ideas which don't necessarily turn a profit for a board of directors. I don't really know how you think we're going to create meaning around unprofitable domains without academia, but I can guarantee you that it won't be as efficient as a system honed over the past 200 years or so.

The problem of academia is not fundamental to the system, but rather a question of priorities. There are the means, in even the most meager of state guided capitalistic systems, to provide adequate funding to perpetuate our academic system. Unfortunately we choose not to take those paths. Instead we fatten administration on the fantasy of running our universities like "businesses", which (in turn) builds up expensive things to attract and extract tuition from the working poor with the lie of bestowing a middle class life on them (often facilitated by PhD educated adjuncts working for just above slave labor).

There's history behind why we have the academic system. Our current economic problems should not (although I feel they ultimately will) destroy that system.
posted by codacorolla at 9:56 PM on January 16 [5 favorites]


jenfullmoon: "Why do people do this? They're young, all they know is school, and they haven't the faintest idea what a boring 8-5 day job is like. Grad school sounds prestigious and like it will make you more money, and it means you don't have to find a boring real job for 3-6-whatever more years! And you'll sound like a big shot with your degree! And not to mention that these days, finding any kind of job including McDonald's seems nigh-impossible. (A friend of mine went to a job interview today and the employer said she was getting hundreds of applications a year ago, but now it's died down enough that my friend was one of the top 8.) You have to do something with yourself and if your parents aren't cool with you just living at home unemployed.... I can understand why people still do grad school, when it all looks like that."

As a 35-year-old person who has worked the same boring 40-hour-a-week job for four years now, and who is also in graduate school, I can tell you that you're more wrong than you realize. Even aside from the fact that plenty of grad students aren't as young as you're painting them, nobody is as naïve as you're making them out to be.

College students know what a boring 9-5 day job is like, generally. Everybody does! There is nothing particular or striking or unexpected about it! That's basically the very definition of a boring job - and I have worked many boring 9 to 5 day jobs. And they are well aware of the dangers of graduate school. It is difficult to be aware of anything else these days; it's constantly screamed at everyone in society nowadays, in this and thousands of other "ACADEMIA IS HELL! TURN BACK NOW!" articles that are published daily. Heck, I started thinking about grad school more than a decade ago, when I was still an undergrad. You know what every single professor I talked to told me? "Don't do it! It's a terrible mistake. Academia is wretched, and you will be unhappy."

I think we might have to contemplate the possibility that the vast proportion of people who go to grad school do so because they like the subject and think they might be good enough at it to be a professional scholar.
posted by koeselitz at 10:15 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


Ha ha ha. Terminal (PhD) programs.

That's the least of it. The way that Post Docs (the first, sometimes second, post-doctoral job; subsidized by granting agencies) are handled are an extension of the disease.

As a scientist person I hate to say it, but perhaps we need another cold war. Perhaps with China, but not now and probably not within the next 10 years. Korea (and Singapore) are more worthy adversaries to W. Europe/N. America in life sciences research. I'm actually generally appalled by the bio "science" publications coming out of Chinese labs, especially government/military sponsored ones. Maybe they save the good stuff and don't publish.

Then again, there are PhD graduates from my own PhD lab, and from labs in the same R1(+!) level research centre, who don't deserve their degrees and are completely useless.

PhDs are definitely not equal, even from the same institution.
posted by porpoise at 10:51 PM on January 16


Learn how to make jets, rockets and software. [...] the man has you by the balls while you contemplate nothing

Ironically, the main way to do the former two at a high level is to get funded by DARPA.
posted by jaduncan at 1:07 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


What STEM shortage? Electrical engineering lost 35,000 jobs last year
posted by jeffburdges at 3:10 AM on January 17


“TA salary and fee remission not enough to support my two children,”

I grew up like this, although with VA and SSA death benefits supplementing whatever meager income TA-ing or part time teaching provided, and a dissertation-obsessed, often unavailable single parent. It was sort of awful. It's a pretty selfish thing to do, in fact.
posted by thelonius at 3:57 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


The internet has made your knowledge cheap and your vocation as common as the breath beneath the particular words you choose to follow.

This mentality is precisely why we need Phds with job prospects: because when you can find anything out immediatley on the internet, everyone's an amateur or has a superficial knowledge of any subject just by googling. Phds research one topic FOR YEARS, and know it inside and out.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:02 AM on January 17 [7 favorites]


The internet has made your knowledge cheap

This is a little like saying "hey, farmer, why are you still messing around with cows? Don't you know that there's tons of milk just sitting around on supermarket shelves in nice convenient packages! What a rube!"
posted by yoink at 8:07 AM on January 17 [13 favorites]


The internet has made your knowledge cheap

If you've ever become obsessed enough with a question to actually exhaust a (good) public library's resources on it, the topic has no Wikipedia article and extremely few academic papers even written (none of which are available online)...you know this isn't true. When you start wading into the deep-deep end, the internet can't necessarily provide everything you're looking for, except tantalizing clues that point you toward doors that are closed to you unless you're an academic.
posted by Ouisch at 9:37 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


Emigrate to Canada. Our grad students are ridiculously well funded...They get incredibly sweet deals

Depends on your definition, I suppose. We make enough to have a comfortable student living, but we aren't exactly rolling around in our piles of excess money. It depends on the university, but my stipend is fairly average, about 20k/year tax free, for PhD (17.5k for Masters). If you keep an A- average you get free tuition, which most people do - but I had a friend who didn't make that cut and he was paying 7k tuition out of his 17k/year stipend. Minimum wage is 10$/hour here, so he was making well under that, and struggling to get by. Not exactly what I would call "ridiculously well funded" unless you luck out on a sweet (rare and highly competitive) scholarship but I suppose it depends on your reference point. It seems like our stipends are fairly similar to those in the US, though.

This is also in science - I'm told that humanities programs don't get a stipend at all, so I only know people who did those part-time over many years (while working), and/or who had a free ride from their job paying. Perhaps I chose the wrong province to live in.
posted by randomnity at 11:29 AM on January 17


I went to high school with a lot of people who went on to get PhDs and do the academia thing. This was a magnet school for gifted students, so maybe my social circle consists entirely of outliers. But most of them are pursuing the tenure track thing, and seem to be doing fine.

Things I think that are working in all of their favor:

- We grew up in a "flyover state", and all of the people I can think of who are pursuing academia as a career are still living in "flyover states" with low costs of living.

- When we graduated from high school in the late 90s, there was a state program that basically paid people like us to go to college in-state (and, again, "flyover state"). None of my academia friends have undergrad debt.

- Because of the magnet school situation and going to public colleges in a flyover state, a lot of them were able to use their AP test scores to get out of elementary coursework and jet straight to upper level undergrad work. All of them were incredibly involved in their departments and sort of on the academia politics train by like sophomore year of college. To an extent, the school we graduated from may have made them big fish in a small pond by reputation.

- Despite all this, all of them work extremely hard (in many cases teaching at for-profit universities in addition to their university workloads), make very little money, and are poised to continue living that way into the future. Nobody thinks a PhD is their ticket to wealth, and all of them are fine with continuing to live hand to mouth in the middle of nowhere forever it means they get to do research on carnie culture and the history of professional wrestling. They did not sign up for this for the money.
posted by Sara C. at 3:58 PM on January 17


As a grad student in the process of "Mastering out" I can relate to a lot of the stuff posted here. I think the reality is life is much harder than advertised no matter what route you take. I think I'll look back on my grad experience positively once I'm away and settled somewhere else. I learned tons that have nothing to do with research. Hopefully I can turn the negative experiences into positive skills and life lessons.
posted by jroger2908 at 7:45 AM on February 13


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